In designing a new sub-10,000-pound business jet, Honda designer Michimasa Fujino took an unusual approach. Most start-up aircraft companies begin with
a conceptual airplane, something that a starry-eyed designer or wannabe manufacturer believes will revolutionize the marketplace or even change the so-called value proposition by attracting new buyers into the jet market. These companies invariably build a model airplane, one that demonstrates their leaders’ concept and looks flashy as it flies from airshow to airshow.
That is one way of launching a new design. Another is to stick with pen and paper, selling the concept of a new jet that should perform as promised and (oh, by the way) needs hundreds of millions of dollars to achieve FAA certification before entering production. In many cases, escrow bank accounts are created and deposits gladly accepted, but there is no guarantee the proposed airplane will turn out the way its designer conceived at the beginning.
But one way to guarantee that a new design does what its designer says it will do is to take the approach Fujino did. The HondaJet didn’t spring fresh from Fujino’s drawing board. He spent years in the U.S. learning about aviation and building a prototype turboprop with pusher engines. Later, Fujino conceived the HondaJet design and convinced Honda leaders to fund a flying prototype. But Honda and Fujino didn’t just build an airplane and then tell the world about it and ask for deposits. Honda also built a from-scratch turbofan engine, the HF118, to power the new jet.
Later, the company formed a joint venture with GE to design and power the follow-on HF120 engine, which is to power its production airplane.
The HondaJet, as it was eventually named, wasn’t completely a secret, but when it took to the skies on Dec. 3, 2003, the aviation world was surprised nonetheless. The surprise was not just that a company like Honda would spend so much money developing a new jet in a marketplace crowded with much more experienced manufacturers and many other new manufacturers, but also that the jet was such an unusual design.
In most respects, the HondaJet is conventional. The engine placement is what sets it apart. Trying various engine-mounting methods, Fujino found that placing the engines on wing-mounted pylons offered unique advantages, namely a significant reduction in the rise of the drag curve as the jet nears critical Mach number. The wing-mounted engines also add less structure to the fuselage than traditional rear-fuselage-mounted engines, providing extra interior space for passengers and baggage.
Fujino likes to relate the story of his visit to Boeing facilities to run wind tunnel tests on the pylon-mounted engine design. Some of the Boeing engineers were skeptical, but they quickly changed their minds, he said, when they saw the results of the tests, admitting that the HondaJet designers were onto something.
Fujino and Honda flew the prototype HondaJet for many hours, keeping plans to certify and produce it a secret until almost two and half years later, at the 2006 EAA AirVenture show in Oshkosh, Wis. But even with that announcement, Honda did not start taking orders until last year’s NBAA convention, almost three years after the first flight and in marked contrast to the way other OEMs run new jet programs.
Honda Aircraft, the company formed to build and market the HondaJet, is now engaged in the long slog toward certification, which is expected in 2010. The second prototype–expected to fly in 2009–is under construction and will conform to the final design and production standards. Honda still has plenty of flight and ground test data to work with and continues to fly the number-one prototype. Construction of Honda Aircraft’s factory in Greensboro, N.C., is already under way and the Honda/General Electric joint venture that is building the GE-Honda HF120 engine for the HondaJet recently announced plans to build a plant about 30 miles away in Burlington, N.C.
Fujino, now president and CEO of Honda Aircraft, said he is confident that the $3.65 million HondaJet will exceed the performance specifications that have been released thus far. High-speed cruise is 420 knots and NBAA IFR range is 1,180 nm. Two versions may be offered, one seating four passengers and two pilots and a five-passenger version for air-taxi use. The HondaJet is being certified under Part 23 and will be single-pilot approved. Honda Aircraft has revealed orders from more than 100 HondaJet buyers.